Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Travel Misery

You would think that, being someone who travels a lot, I would know all the secrets and tricks of the savvy traveler. Sadly, no. This week, in fact, I fell into one of the traps that the airlines plant for unsuspecting travelers and I ended up getting home to Oxford about 12 hours delayed and extremely grumpy.

My first mistake was breaking one of the obvious rules of travel: always take a direct flight. Tempted by the much much lower cost of a connecting flight, I was supposed to take an afternoon hop from Newark to DC Dulles (United Express) and then catch an overnight flight (United International) to London Heathrow and be back at Oxford by 6am. The lower cost is great, but when things start to go wrong, a missed connection can add hours if not days to your travel time, as well as taking years off your life in stress.

Anyway, on the day of the flight there was some rain and the United connections from Newark to Dulles were all delayed. I got to the airport almost three hours early, but there was no room on any earlier United flight to Dulles so it looked likely I would miss Dulles-London, and there seemed to be no space on later flights because everyone was being bumped around due to the weather and open slots were already filled. The woman behind the desk said that there were several options

(1) Get to Dulles late and hope for standby on a later Dulles-London
(2) Just go home and have the ticket pushed to tomorrow
(3) A flight on Alitalia connecting through Rome that should get me to Heathrow only about four hours late.

Of these three option, (3) actually sounded like it was the best. I had meetings in Oxford that I really wanted to keep, and a four hour delay, while not optimal, sounded pretty good --- I would still be there in plenty of time. And so the woman behind the desk made the change.

And that was my second mistake.

Here’s the rub: Once the ticket is transferred to Alitalia, United has washed their hands of the situation. Options (1) and (2) vanish immediately. The ticket belongs to Alitalia, which has far fewer flights going to London. Although Alitalia was not admitting it at the time when we made the transfer of the ticket, their flight was going to be delayed too… which meant that I would miss my connection in Rome. As soon as I got to the Alitalia ticket counter, I knew I had made a mistake – and there was no way to fix the problem. Alitalia would not budge. They owned the ticket, and they would get me to London to make good on the ticket --- they just had no way to do it very efficiently. Going through Rome was not optimal to begin with, but now I was stuck with it, even though it was clear that I would miss the connection and then be stuck in Rome for quite a while longer.

I won't even bother to complain about not being able to sleep on the flight. I made it home to Oxford at about 7pm that day. 12 hours delayed. Grrr.

Next time I'll know better.

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